This is a question I’ve been asked often both as a consultant and as a professional colleague.
I know that some people want to hear concrete, easy-to-implement answers, like “Use this program designed by someone who’s never set foot in your organization,” “Advertise here,” or “Do these three harm-reduction protocols that assume to know what harm you’re causing and assume anything they haven’t foreseen is irrelevant,” but, until you know why you’re having trouble attracting diverse applicants and retaining the diverse staff you hire, it’s all guesswork.
The real answer is: ASK THEM. Believe them when they tell you what’s wrong. Then ACT on it. You must then assess your progress over time, which includes, of course, restarting the cycle with ASK THEM. This is an oversimplified overview, of course. The complexity of these issues is why there’s an entire profession around JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) work. But understanding the basic steps will help you to lead your organization to JEDI mastery.
Let’s start by breaking down what I mean by “ASK THEM.”
“Ask them” doesn’t mean management walking up to employees in the break room and saying, “Kim, you’re Black! Why don’t more Black people want to work here?” When you’re seeking to learn more about why your organization struggles to retain BIPOC, disabled, LGBTQ+, and (in many places) female staff, your data gathering must both FEEL safe and BE safe for your employees.
While we’re at a cultural moment in which equity in the workplace is being more closely examined, there is still a very real lack of safety around speaking openly about racism, sexism, and other types of bigotry and discrimination in the workplace. Although technically illegal, retaliation is common. For example, 72% of people who report sexual harassment in the workplace face retaliation.
Retaliation. The fear of retaliation is intense and very justified. Most employees in your organization who are BIPOC, disabled, LGBTQ+, or female witnessed retaliation or experienced it firsthand before they came to your organization. Retaliation works as intended — it creates a cultural climate of fear around speaking honestly about workplace experiences. Retaliation is easy to excuse and difficult to prove, leaving employees very little recourse. Three of the most common types of retaliation are poor performance evaluations, hostile work environment, and blackballing.
Performance reviews are so unproductive, ROI-negative, and easy to manipulate that many companies, such as GE, Adobe, and Deloitte, have just eliminated them completely. The ease with which they can be manipulated or even falsified make them perhaps the most common form of retaliation. It takes very little effort to make a poor performance eval appear well-earned by exaggerating flaws and minimizing achievements, giving employees very little recourse. A retaliatory performance eval has the added bonus of justifying future retaliatory actions such as demotion or even termination.
Creating a (more) hostile work environment is depressingly common and just as difficult to prove. Each individual instance is minor, and complaining about them seems petty, but the hostility is very, very real and it adds up quickly. Gaslighting is a common tactic that hides behind “a difference of opinion.” There’s nothing quite like watching the white men in an organization close ranks and insist that women of color on staff are “exaggerating” about workplace racism and sexism, yet I saw it with my own eyes at an organization that advertises itself as focused on social justice.
Blackballing is the ultimate threat. While technically illegal, it’s very common for former employers to tell prospective future employers that someone who spoke out about issues in the workplace is a “troublemaker,” “toxic,” “not a team player.” This often takes the form of words that appear to be race-neutral but are so commonly used to refer to Black people that they have become racially coded, such as “angry,” “didn’t fit corporate culture,” and “unprofessional.” Again, illegal but very common.
I know what you’re thinking — “But I would never do any of those! My staff can trust me! I’m ready to do the work.” Even if that’s true, your staff will never give you the whole truth until you’ve proven to them that you’re trustworthy and ready. I’ve personally witnessed white men in upper management claim they were “ready,” then retaliate viciously against every single person who spoke out. And while you may know to the core of your being that you would never do such a thing, the fear that comes from having seen it elsewhere — over and over and over — is very real, and too great to ask your staff to overcome before the work begins and they see you being reliably awesome.
Another way marginalized workers will be more likely to trust you is when they see you refusing to settle for compliance-based assessments of your organization’s JEDI progress.
Compliance-Based Assessments. Don’t mistake compliance with the law and lack of EEOC complaints for success. This is a common roadblock for organizations that see JEDI as an aspect of HR. Most workplaces that experience difficulties attracting and retaining diverse staff are (at least on paper) compliant with the law. Your organization can be completely compliant with the law and still be a miserable place to work for women, BIPOC, disabled people, trans people, fat people, non-Christians, and anyone who isn’t in your corporate culture “in group.” If you want to attract and retain diverse staff, you must do more than refrain from deliberately mistreating them.
A lack of formal complaints is as far from JEDI success as passing the DMV driving test is from qualifying for the Isle of Man TT. Your organization may have many serious issues and yet have never received a formal complaint. Most instances of marginalization and bigotry in the workplace are extremely difficult to prove, and the formal complaint process is often expensive, onerous, intimidating, and timebound. Go look at the EEOC site — it’s a wonder any complaints are filed at all. Additionally, it’s well known that EEOC complaints are usually more trouble than they’re worth; 82% of workers who reported cases of discrimination in the past decade received no relief whatsoever. And of course fear of retaliation is huge here as well. JEDI success is not about avoiding lawsuits. It’s about making your organization a welcoming place for all types of workers, enabling you to attract and retain the best of the best in all your hires, not just the best out of one limited demographic. Which brings us back to:
“ASK THEM.” The first step in attracting and retaining a diverse workforce is identifying your organization’s strengths and growth areas by crafting effective, robust data gathering that captures both quantitative and qualitative data and analyzes that data effectively. You’ll also need longitudinal data gathering strategies to assess progress over time.
To make data gathering both safe and effective, you need a multilayered approach, and I strongly recommend bringing in a JEDI specialist to guide you through the process of data gathering and data analysis.
Quantitative data. A lot of organizations limit themselves to the most basic quantitative data gathering — how many people of certain identities are on staff. This is the first step, not an effective approach to data gathering in and of itself.
One mistake I’ve seen people make with data analysis is to use incomplete employment data. I was recently asked for my opinion about attracting and retaining a diverse workforce for a large local business. The data I was given was just a table showing staff diversity data over time. A fictionalized example:
- 15% Latinx workers
- 4% Black workers
- 6% Asian workers
- 11% women
- 18% Latinx workers
- 8% Black workers
- 6% Asian workers
- 12% women
It looks like this fictional business is on the right track, right? Well, maybe not. How many of the original staff from 2012 are part of the 2017 staff? Are they hiring BIPOC and women workers only to see them leave within 2–3 years? If so, why are they leaving? The area in which the business is located is currently 25% Black, 27% Latinx, 15% Asian, and, of course, 52% female. Why are they so underrepresented at this company? Is the (slightly) increased representation due to JEDI initiatives they’ve put in place, a change in demographics in the area, or something else? Why haven’t they gathered any data on disabled workers? Trans/enby/genderqueer workers? Native workers? And those questions just scratch the surface of the data that needs to be gathered. There was simply no answer to the question they were asking without deepening the quantitative data gathering and beginning robust qualitative data gathering.
Qualitative data. Quantitative data is the what; qualitative data is the why. Without identifying the specific issues at your organization — a process that will only be successful if your workforce is empowered to speak freely, without fear of retaliation no matter how misplaced you believe that fear is — your quantitative data will be essentially useless. Qualitative data gathering can take many different forms, and this is where a JEDI specialist will be critical. You only get answers to the questions you ask, and a JEDI specialist will be able to determine which questions your organization needs to ask. Additionally, there must be an impenetrable layer of anonymity in qualitative data gathering. Employees need to know that they will be protected from retaliation. Anonymity is just the first step; BIPOC workers often fear retaliation against all BIPOC on staff, and for very good reason. Fragility, resistance, defensiveness, gaslighting, and retaliation are all very common responses from management when issues in their workplace are identified, which is why “believe them” is the critical next step.
The hard reality is that it’s very difficult for any of us to examine how we’ve contributed to a workplace that’s uncomfortable for diverse workers. Most people in management, especially upper-level management, have many robust areas of privilege and the power to act on that privilege in harmful ways, even unknowingly. Everyone with privilege — and we all have areas of marginalization and areas of privilege in our intersectional identities — has contributed to and benefitted from systems of marginalization and oppression. We all have work to do.
There are concrete benefits to addressing these issues. A diverse workforce that feels valued and heard is a more productive workforce, a workforce with loyalty to you and your organization, a workforce that will delight clients and be brand ambassadors for you wherever they go. But most importantly, working for greater equity in your organization is the right thing to do.